Ben Sasse's Conservative Cause Needs Brooklyn

The Nebraska senator opposed Trump on principle. It turns out his principle won't be sufficient.

Their values matter.

Photographer: Bryan R. Smith/AFP/Getty Images

With Donald Trump poised to assume power over the federal government, individual Republicans must decide whether they are on Team Trump, Team Conservative or Team America. The overwhelming majority will choose the first, and most expedient, category. They will use Trump, and be used by him, to advance their own ambition, trampling underfoot whatever conflicting principles they previously claimed to hold.

There will, however, be a few notables who align themselves either with conservative principles, or with the broader, less ideological cause of supporting democratic norms, pluralistic political culture and American cohesion. This small band, aided by Democratic allies, will determine how much damage Trump inflicts while making America great again.

Senator John McCain, for example, has already raised concerns about Trump's crush on Vladimir Putin and about Trump's position on torturing suspected enemies. There's nothing uniquely conservative about either concern. Similarly, Senator Lindsey Graham is not enthusiastic about Trump's plan to deport young undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children. It's a humane position, but not an especially conservative one.

For a conservative perspective on Trump, it's worth viewing an eloquent and thoughtful speech that Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska delivered last week to a gathering of conservative lawyers. (His staff provided me with a transcript.) Sasse urged those preparing to join the Trump administration to put principle before power.

"What’s glorious," he said, "is when people believe in limited government and restraint when we are the ones in power and we now have the opportunity to model that restraint."

"Restraint" would be high on any list of antonyms for Trumpism. Writing on Facebook in February, Sasse said, "Trump’s relentless focus is on dividing Americans, and on tearing down rather than building back up this glorious nation." Sasse regarded  Trump not only as a destructive political force, but as a threat to conservative governance in particular.

The law is king, and the people are boss. But have you noticed how Mr. Trump uses the word “Reign” -- like he thinks he’s running for King? It’s creepy, actually.

Can conservatism alone restrain the creepiness?

We'll soon see, as Trump proceeds to co-opt and compromise former opponents on the right. If conservatism falters, and Sasse doesn't, he'll need to find allies more determined to resist. An ill-considered tweet (of all the Trumpian things) the senator wrote last week suggests that his commitment to principle might benefit from a less narrow perspective.

"Why don't we have more reporting on paid rioting?" Sasse tweeted. He followed that with a series of who, where and why questions about "workers" being paid to protest against Trump.


Sasse later tweeted that he was suspicious of "astroturf" activities, in which powerful interests pay for the appearance of grassroots support.

But it seemed more likely that one of the Senate's best-educated members, bearing multiple degrees including a Ph.D in history from Yale, had been a sucker for fake news. Either way, Sasse's failure of imagination was troubling.

In his speech to the conservative Federalist Society, Sasse praised Tocqueville's observation that the dynamism of American politics and culture and economy resided not with bureaucrats in the nation's capital but in the hinterlands. Sasse's word for this web of provincial dynamism and virtue is "community."

Yet when he observed fellow Americans taking to the streets in communal protest, he misread the concept entirely. A conservative white man from Nebraska, Sasse perceives Trump as a threat to his philosophical values.

How does he think citizens in Austin or New York or Los Angeles feel? Trump hasn't demonized rural white men. But he has demeaned working women, threatened Hispanics, demonized blacks. His incoming vice president has supported crackpot "conversion" therapy for gays and lesbians.

Sasse is a talented and promising young politician. But he missed something painfully obvious: No one needs to be paid to protest against an existential threat.

Trump's aggression may not be a grave concern to most Nebraskans, who voted for him. But it is to much of cosmopolitan America, where far more Americans live. (The borough of Brooklyn contains more people than the state of Nebraska. So does Queens.)

Trump threatens cosmopolitan and multicultural values. He denigrates urban lives. Worse, after more than a century of urbanization, the American political system -- especially Sasse's Senate -- structurally discounts those values, and lives, making it harder for those communities to fight back. (That political imbalance is one reason why the loser of the popular vote is set to become president.)

Sasse doesn't represent Brooklyn or Austin. And he will face political trouble at home if he opposes Trump too openly. But if he's truly committed to restraining the "creepy" advance of authoritarianism, his most committed allies won't be found hiding in the Republican caucus. They are walking down a city street, feeling abused, angry and vulnerable. If Trump's presidency is anything like his campaign, it won't cost a penny to activate them.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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    Francis Wilkinson at

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    Katy Roberts at

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